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Sounds of the Bush

Woolshed concert, Photo: Susanne James

Some years ago, I saw a yellowing piece of paper in an artist’s itinerary file in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s archives. It’s hard to remember it verbatim now, but the gist of this note from an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) employee to the agent of a stellar European artist was, ‘Yes, recitals in Wonthaggi , Wagga Wagga and Warracknabeal really are part of the deal.’ Back then – the 1950s – the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) was deeply committed to country tours, presenting their international artists beyond the populated eastern coast. David Garrett, in an article for a Sydney Symphony Opera House program, also mentions the first visit of the ABC’s ‘New South Wales Orchestra’ to Wollongong, Katoomba, Orange and Bathurst in 1938 in honour of the State’s 150th anniversary. The Bathurst press, says Garrett, ‘was excited by “the first occasion on which a symphony orchestra has given a recital so far west [159 kms, 98 miles] of Sydney”.’

Australia’s major performing arts organisations still travel to regional Australia. All the state orchestras (Adelaide, Melbourne, Queensland, Sydney, Tasmanian and West Australian Symphony Orchestras) travelled beyond their city limits last year. This year, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra will, in fact, celebrate 80 years of regional touring by replicating the 1938 event with concerts in Wollongong (again), Nowra and Mittagong.

Musica Viva’s 2018 program includes tours of artists such as Elena Kats-Chernin and Tamara-Anna Cislowska to Yass and Orange, and the Sydney Chamber Choir to Armidale, Coffs Harbour and Grafton. They will tour the Mission Songs Project, an initiative to revive contemporary Australian Indigenous songs once sung on ‘missions, state run settlements and native camps’, to Grafton, Nowra, and Gunnedah. Musica Viva In Schools also tours to regional areas nationally, from southern Tasmania to Croker Island in the Torres Strait.

Then there are groups like the ACO Collective (the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s regional ensemble, under the direction of Pekka Kuusisto) which travels this year to West Australian cities such as Kalgoorlie and Bunbury (remote West Australian towns are also on the itinerary of the West Australian Symphony’s WASO On the Road). And the Australian Chamber Orchestra has other regional initiatives, such as a partnership with the Gondwana Indigenous Children’s Choir, based in Cairns, Far North Queensland.

Opera Australia will tour Madam Butterfly to places such as Ballarat, Dubbo, Mildura and Murwillimbah, ‘along with a children’s chorus, drawn from local communities’. And so far, we’re only talking about music. There are tours by the major theatre and dance companies. When you think about the size of regional Australia – a population spread very, very thinly over an area the size of Europe or America’s ‘lower 48’ – these are major commitments from city-based companies. Check out the website of the Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG) if you want to see an interactive map of how each federal electorate has been represented.[1]

But the idea for this article came to me in 2017 while visiting friends in the ‘New England’ city of Armidale in sheep and cattle grazing country 379 kms (235 miles) from Sydney in northern inland NSW. I was charmed by Armidale (population: 23,352), which I’d never visited before. Green by Australian standards, it had that Victorian-era look of old Australian cities – broad streets bordered by large pubs and public buildings fringed with wrought-iron lace balconies. It boasts lovely countryside with rolling hills but also some pretty spectacular gorges nearby (such as Dangars, which I noticed from the plane coming in). But the streets were emptier than I expected and I also noted that the Sydney Opera House or Queensland Performing Arts Centre are both seven hours’ drive away. What is it like to be a classical music aficionado and live there, where you can’t just go to a show any time you like?

Susanne James was Education Manager at the Sydney Symphony (1992-1995) and later founding Director of Sydney Conservatorium’s Open Academy. She and her husband, Malcolm McClintock, a painter I met in Melbourne in 1973, lived in Armidale from 2011-17 when she became director of the New England Conservatorium.

Robert (‘Bob’) Clarke was Chief Executive of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (1995-2004). Originally a Cammeray boy (from Sydney’s north shore), he went to school in Armidale, and he and his wife, Anne, lived in Armidale for about six years 30 years ago when Bob was a local accountant. They have recently moved back to the New England city.

I asked Susanne why people live there. ‘You can have a good life. There are a lot of people who have had a university education, say at the University of New England (UNE) in their 20s, and they make the decision to leave the city so they can have a good lifestyle, send their children to good schools, buy real estate for a reasonable price and have a property with a large garden and grow vegetables.’

Her husband Malcolm interjects from the background, ‘And live out of town and have horses.’

‘Dogs and chooks. And that’s a really healthy lifestyle,’ adds Susanne. ‘They can live much cheaper here and with that money go overseas once or twice a year. And a lot of those people can go to Sydney very easily. We know people who will get in a minibus to Sydney and see two operas over a weekend, go to some good restaurants and then come back again. That gives them flexibility.’

‘What exists in a place like this,’ says Bob Clarke, ‘is enthusiasm. There’s a high level.’ He talks of all the organisations people can join ‘because they want to. It’s not a job. It’s all voluntary. And there’s a great huge deal of satisfaction when a project is finished.’

As to whether Susanne and Malcolm often made the drive to Sydney, ‘We found the drive incredibly exhausting,’ she says. ‘And if you want to go the coast it’s a three-hour drive – over a beautiful range on the way to Coffs Harbour, mind you.’ Bob Clarke makes the point that Armidale is serviced several times daily from Sydney and ‘it’s a prop-jet, not a wind-up thing like a Sopwith Camel.’

GW: So you rely on touring companies to bring the entertainment to you?

SJ: ‘We get the ACO Collective. We will get Opera Australia’s touring opera every second year or so. And that is a really good little production. We would get the Sydney International Piano Competition winner every four years and maybe the runner-up on the following year. So they’re the sort of professional productions we would get coming into town, but the reason these things happen is because you will either have a regional conservatorium where there is the funding and infrastructure and staffing to be able to mount these productions and to take on the financial risk. Or a group of enthusiastic volunteers. And that’s how the touring model of, say, Musica Viva works.’

‘Musica Viva gets a tick in my opinion,’ says Bob Clarke, of the 70 years-old Sydney-based chamber music society that tours not only international and local artists to Australia’s major capital cities but also regional areas as well. And Musica Viva even does touring to much more remote destinations. Trish Ludgate, who was Musica Viva’s CountryWide and Export Manager from 1983-2003 has written of the logistics of early tours to outback places like Fitzroy Crossing, Kununurra, and the Pilbara – ‘the jigsaw pieces needed to be laid on a very big table.’[2] She also picked up little practical hints like not relying on a map to work out how long it will take to get from Point A to Point B, but asking a local. In fact, one of the ingredients for successful touring that Susanne mentioned to me in writing this piece is the importance of having someone on the ground as a contact point.

As someone who worked for Australian orchestras when they operated as a network in the old ABC days, I was interested in what Susanne said about the NSW Regional Conservatorium network: ‘There are 17 Regional Conservatoriums in NSW,’ she says. ‘So the New England Conservatorium (NECOM) where I used to be the director is considered a non-tertiary community conservatorium and tasked with being a hub of providing music education experiences and concerts to schools particularly and to the community.’ A glance at NECOM’s most recent newsletter, from the new director, Russell Bauer, reveals the sorts of things they’re doing: the string department helping local students work toward the Armidale Eisteddfod; Australian Music Examinations Board exams; an annual Music Day for Year 10 students from all over the New England region; Night Tours of the Newling Building, the historic old teachers’ college building where NECOM is located; also, a float in the Autumn Festival parade! The Conservatorium reaches some 5,500 students across the New England region and some 5,000 people through concert performances.

‘And’, continues Susanne, ‘every Regional Conservatorium gets funding from the state departments of education and the arts, and arts funding is aimed particularly at concert-going. It gives money to Regional Conservatoriums to bring up professional musicians and to create music concerts for their town. Part of that funding would be used for bringing up city-based groups.’

But clearly there is a lot of local activity if the regional conservatorium is helping students work toward an eisteddfod, and there are Armidale Youth Orchestras, a local Bach festival and, outside of music, organisations like ADFAS (the Armidale Decorative and Fine Arts Society), a French film festival… This squares with my experience when I lived in Alice Springs, smack bang in the middle of Australia. You might think there is nothing to do there after work but go to the pub, but you could go out every night if you wanted to – to the Society for Growing Australian Plants one night, Big Band Tuesday, or Totem Theatre the next night…

‘I’m on the board of the New England Regional Arts Museum,’ says Bob Clarke. ‘I’m on the finance committee, I’m on the fund-raising committee. And there’s a good cross-section of things to do, if you want.’ Susanne speaks of the opportunity to do really creative things like putting on concerts in heritage-listed buildings, such as woolsheds. Malcolm ended up being president of the New England Art Society.

And people really do want to muck in. ‘We would get Opera Australia’s touring group every two years or so,’ says Susanne. ‘We’d have to guarantee a fee and – and this is the big part – we’d have to provide a staff to build sets and bump in and bump out. We had eight guys for The Marriage of Figaro in 2016. That is massive. You’ve got to start at seven in the morning. You finish at one o’clock. And then as soon as the opera is finished at ten-thirty, all of those people come back and bump out until 2 o’clock in the morning. And that’s what regional people have to do to get the opera.’

But we know we’re not getting the B team, points out Susanne. And we get to hear specially-commissioned works.

But international standards? ‘I go to the Met’s live broadcasts at the local cinema, the Belgrave,’ says Bob.

GW: ‘At 10am? Is it too early for a Choc Top?’

BC: ‘How could you possibly go to the cinema and not get a Choc Top?’

‘You get ABC Classic-FM, too, don’t you?’ I ask, referring to Australia’s principal classical music station, broadcast over the entire continent.

‘Yes,’ says Bob with a tone that suggests he’s shaking his head at my question, ‘and we have television.’

But what are the disadvantages? After a bit of a pause, Susanne says, ‘A lot of regional towns in NSW do have very small populations and struggle to maintain or sustain a good restaurant/café industry. There are clubs, RSLs, the ‘Servies’ [Returned Servicemen’s League clubs], but there are people who go to those and people who don’t. So you will find that the café culture is improving – particularly in the daytime – but at night and over the weekends they’ll close, so there’s not the good quality eating and dining out that you would automatically get in the city.’

Which reminds me that not all country regions are the same. On the north coast of NSW (‘the Northern Rivers’) where a bunch of similarly-sized towns sit relatively close together and form a network, you can have breakfast in Alstonville, lunch in Bangalow and dinner in Lismore. So, when you say ‘the country’ not all regions share the same demographic characteristics.

Bob Clarke lists other downsides. ‘There is a city-country divide. You become very conscious of that when you move back to the bush – the state government, for example, wanting to pull down and rebuild the Sydney Olympic stadium when the football stadium here is a row of benches slowly rotting into the ground. I don’t miss the fact that I can’t subscribe to an entire season and going down to Sydney is a fair whack of money. The groups could visit more often. But that’s a dollar issue. In a sense, up here you’re stuck with a “like it or lump it” sort of thing. But that’s the other thing about living in the bush; you accept your compromises. On the other hand if you go to a performance here it’s a social gathering – you know half the audience – and that adds to the experience.’

My wife and I have found, since living in America, that small towns are really enlivened by having a university in their midst (think Chapel Hill, Princeton, San Luis Obispo) and I’m mindful of the fact that UNE once had an ensemble of international standard, the New England Ensemble, which served as a nucleus or catalyst for musical standards in the city. That group doesn’t exist anymore but there still seems to be a lot of homegrown groups producing their own native crops. And the city-based groups look like they’re still going to keep going out to the bush. Long may they do so. As David Garrett commented on that New South Wales Symphony Orchestra’s 1938 visit to the regions, ‘If even one light went on in a youthful head, hearing and seeing an orchestra for the first time – perhaps as the Overture to Tannhäuser reached “a climax of massive brilliance” – then the experiment was surely worthwhile.’

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2018

[1] AMPAG touring Map

[2] Trish Ludgate, article for the Musica Viva Storybook, Celebrating 70 Years of Music

Armidale in the spring from North Hill. Source: Wikimedia. Photo: Terry Cooke